On Feb. 13, Imad Moughniyeh, a senior commander
of Hezbollah, was assassinated in Damascus. "The world is a better place without
this man in it," State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said: "one way
or the other he was brought to justice." Director of National Intelligence Mike
McConnell added that Moughniyeh has been "responsible for more deaths of Americans
and Israelis than any other terrorist with the exception of Osama bin Laden."
Joy was unconstrained in Israel too, as "one of the U.S. and Israel's most
wanted men" was brought to justice, the London Financial Times reported.
Under the heading, "A militant wanted the world over," an accompanying story
reported that he was "superseded on the most-wanted list by Osama bin Laden"
after 9/11 and so ranked only second among "the most wanted militants in the
The terminology is accurate enough, according to the rules of Anglo-American
discourse, which defines "the world" as the political class in Washington and
London (and whoever happens to agree with them on specific matters). It is common,
for example, to read that "the world" fully supported George Bush when he ordered
the bombing of Afghanistan. That may be true of "the world," but hardly of the
world, as revealed in an international Gallup Poll after the bombing was announced.
Global support was slight. In Latin America, which has some experience with
U.S. behavior, support ranged from 2 percent in Mexico to 16 percent in Panama, and that support
was conditional upon the culprits being identified (they still weren't eight
months later, the FBI reported), and civilian targets being spared (they were
attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial
measures, rejected out of hand by "the world."
Following the Terror Trail
In the present case, if "the world" were extended
to the world, we might find some other candidates for the honor of most hated
arch-criminal. It is instructive to ask why this might be true.
The Financial Times reports that most of the charges against Moughniyeh
are unsubstantiated, but "one of the very few times when his involvement can
be ascertained with certainty [is in] the hijacking of a TWA plane in 1985 in
which a U.S. Navy diver was killed." This was one of two terrorist atrocities
that led a poll of newspaper editors to select terrorism in the Middle East as
the top story of 1985; the other was the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille
Lauro, in which a crippled American, Leon Klinghoffer, was brutally murdered,.
That reflects the judgment of "the world." It may be that the world saw matters
The Achille Lauro hijacking was a retaliation for the bombing of Tunis
ordered a week earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. His air force
killed 75 Tunisians and Palestinians with smart bombs that tore them to shreds,
among other atrocities, as vividly reported from the scene by the prominent
Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk. Washington cooperated by failing to warn
its ally Tunisia that the bombers were on the way, though the Sixth Fleet and
U.S. intelligence could not have been unaware of the impending attack. Secretary
of State George Shultz informed Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir that
Washington "had considerable sympathy for the Israeli action," which he termed
"a legitimate response" to "terrorist attacks," to general approbation. A few
days later, the UN Security Council unanimously denounced the bombing as an
"act of armed aggression" (with the U.S. abstaining). "Aggression" is, of course,
a far more serious crime than international terrorism. But giving the United
States and Israel the benefit of the doubt, let us keep to the lesser charge
against their leadership.
A few days after, Peres went to Washington to consult with the leading international
terrorist of the day, Ronald Reagan, who denounced "the evil scourge of terrorism,"
again with general acclaim by "the world."
The "terrorist attacks" that Shultz and Peres offered as the pretext for the
bombing of Tunis were the killings of three Israelis in Larnaca, Cyprus. The
killers, as Israel conceded, had nothing to do with Tunis, though they might
have had Syrian connections. Tunis was a preferable target, however. It was
defenseless, unlike Damascus. And there was an extra pleasure: more exiled Palestinians
could be killed there.
The Larnaca killings, in turn, were regarded as retaliation by the perpetrators:
They were a response to regular Israeli hijackings in international waters in
which many victims were killed – and many more kidnapped and sent to prisons
in Israel, commonly to be held without charge for long periods. The most notorious
of these has been the secret prison/torture chamber Facility 1391. A good deal
can be learned about it from the Israeli and foreign press. Such regular Israeli
crimes are, of course, known to editors of the national press in the U.S., and
occasionally receive some casual mention.
Klinghoffer's murder was properly viewed with horror, and is very famous. It
was the topic of an acclaimed opera and a made-for-TV movie, as well as much
shocked commentary deploring the savagery of Palestinians – "two-headed beasts"
(Prime Minister Menachem Begin), "drugged roaches scurrying around in a bottle"
(Chief of Staff Raful Eitan), "like grasshoppers compared to us," whose heads
should be "smashed against the boulders and walls" (Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir).
Or more commonly just Araboushim, the slang counterpart of "k*ke" or
Thus, after a particularly depraved display of settler-military terror and
purposeful humiliation in the West Bank town of Halhul in December 1982, which
disgusted even Israeli hawks, the well-known military/political analyst Yoram
Peri wrote in dismay that one "task of the army today [is] to demolish the rights
of innocent people just because they are Araboushim living in territories
that God promised to us," a task that became far more urgent, and was carried
out with far more brutality, when the Araboushim began to "raise their
heads" a few years later.
We can easily assess the sincerity of the sentiments expressed about the Klinghoffer
murder. It is only necessary to investigate the reaction to comparable U.S.-backed
Israeli crimes. Take, for example, the murder in April 2002 of two crippled
Palestinians, Kemal Zughayer and Jamal Rashid, by Israeli forces rampaging through
the refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank. Zughayer's crushed body and the
remains of his wheelchair were found by British reporters, along with the remains
of the white flag he was holding when he was shot dead while seeking to flee
the Israeli tanks which then drove over him, ripping his face in two and severing
his arms and legs. Jamal Rashid was crushed in his wheelchair when one
of Israel's huge U.S.-supplied Caterpillar bulldozers demolished his home in
Jenin with his family inside. The differential reaction, or rather non-reaction,
has become so routine and so easy to explain that no further commentary is necessary.
Plainly, the 1985 Tunis bombing was a vastly more
severe terrorist crime than the Achille Lauro hijacking, or the crime
for which Moughniyeh's "involvement can be ascertained with certainty" in the
same year. But even the Tunis bombing had competitors for the prize for worst
terrorist atrocity in the Mideast in the peak year of 1985.
One challenger was a car-bombing in Beirut right outside a mosque, timed to
go off as worshippers were leaving Friday prayers. It killed 80 people and wounded
256. Most of the dead were girls and women, who had been leaving the mosque,
though the ferocity of the blast "burned babies in their beds," "killed a bride
buying her trousseau," and "blew away three children as they walked home from
the mosque." It also "devastated the main street of the densely populated" West
Beirut suburb, reported Nora Boustany three years later in the Washington
The intended target had been the Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah,
who escaped. The bombing was carried out by Reagan's CIA and his Saudi allies,
with Britain's help, and was specifically authorized by CIA Director William
Casey, according to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's account in
his book Veil:
The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987. Little is known beyond the bare
facts, thanks to rigorous adherence to the doctrine that we do not investigate
our own crimes (unless they become too prominent to suppress, and the inquiry
can be limited to some low-level "bad apples" who were naturally "out of control").
A third competitor for the 1985 Mideast terrorism
prize was Prime Minister Peres' "Iron Fist" operations in southern Lebanese
territories then occupied by Israel in violation of Security Council orders.
The targets were what the Israeli high command called "terrorist villagers."
Peres' crimes in this case sank to new depths of "calculated brutality and arbitrary
murder" in the words of a Western diplomat familiar with the area, an assessment
amply supported by direct coverage. They are, however, of no interest to "the
world" and therefore remain uninvestigated, in accordance with the usual conventions.
We might well ask whether these crimes fall under international terrorism or
the far more severe crime of aggression, but let us again give the benefit of
the doubt to Israel and its backers in Washington and keep to the lesser charge.
These are a few of the thoughts that might cross the minds of people elsewhere
in the world, even if not those of "the world," when considering "one of the
very few times" Imad Moughniyeh was clearly implicated in a terrorist crime.
The U.S. also accuses him of responsibility for devastating double suicide
truck-bomb attacks on U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon
in 1983, killing 241 Marines and 58 paratroopers, as well as a prior attack
on the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63, a particularly serious blow because
of a meeting there of CIA officials at the time.
The Financial Times has, however, attributed the attack on the Marine
barracks to Islamic Jihad, not Hezbollah. Fawaz Gerges, one of the leading scholars
on the jihadi movements and on Lebanon, has written that responsibility
was taken by an "unknown group called Islamic Jihad." A voice speaking in classical
Arabic called for all Americans to leave Lebanon or face death. It has been
claimed that Moughniyeh was the head of Islamic Jihad at the time, but to my
knowledge, evidence is sparse.
The opinion of the world has not been sampled on the subject, but it is possible
that there might be some hesitancy about calling an attack on a military base
in a foreign country a "terrorist attack," particularly when U.S. and French
forces were carrying out heavy naval bombardments and air strikes in Lebanon,
and shortly after the U.S. provided decisive support for the 1982 Israeli invasion
of Lebanon, which killed some 20,000 people and devastated the south, while
leaving much of Beirut in ruins. It was finally called off by President Reagan
when international protest became too intense to ignore after the Sabra-Shatila
In the United States, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is regularly described
as a reaction to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorist attacks on
northern Israel from their Lebanese bases, making our crucial contribution to
these major war crimes understandable. In the real world, the Lebanese border
area had been quiet for a year, apart from repeated Israeli attacks, many of
them murderous, in an effort to elicit some PLO response that could be used
as a pretext for the already planned invasion. Its actual purpose was not concealed
at the time by Israeli commentators and leaders: to safeguard the Israeli takeover
of the occupied West Bank. It is of some interest that the sole serious error
in Jimmy Carter's book Palestine:
Peace Not Apartheid is the repetition of this propaganda concoction
about PLO attacks from Lebanon being the motive for the Israeli invasion. The
book was bitterly attacked, and desperate efforts were made to find some phrase
that could be misinterpreted, but this glaring error – the only one – was ignored.
Reasonably, since it satisfies the criterion of adhering to useful doctrinal
Killing Without Intent
Another allegation is that Moughniyeh "masterminded"
the bombing of Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, killing 29
people, in response, as the Financial Times put it, to Israel's "assassination
of former Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Mussawi in an air attack in southern Lebanon."
About the assassination, there is no need for evidence: Israel proudly took
credit for it. The world might have some interest in the rest of the story.
Mussawi was murdered with a U.S.-supplied helicopter, well north of Israel's
illegal "security zone" in southern Lebanon. He was on his way to Sidon from
the village of Jibshit, where he had spoken at the memorial for another imam
murdered by Israeli forces. The helicopter attack also killed his wife and 5-year-old
child. Israel then employed U.S.-supplied helicopters to attack a car bringing
survivors of the first attack to a hospital.
After the murder of the family, Hezbollah "changed the rules of the game,"
Prime Minister Rabin informed the Israeli Knesset. Previously, no rockets had
been launched at Israel. Until then, the rules of the game had been that Israel
could launch murderous attacks anywhere in Lebanon at will, and Hezbollah would
respond only within Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory.
After the murder of its leader (and his family), Hezbollah began to respond
to Israeli crimes in Lebanon by rocketing northern Israel. The latter is, of
course, intolerable terror, so Rabin launched an invasion that drove some 500,000
people out of their homes and killed well over 100. The merciless Israeli attacks
reached as far as northern Lebanon.
In the south, 80 percent of the city of Tyre fled and Nabatiye was left a "ghost town,"
Jibshit was about 70 percent destroyed according to an Israeli army spokesperson, who
explained that the intent was "to destroy the village completely because of
its importance to the Shi'ite population of southern Lebanon." The goal was
"to wipe the villages from the face of the earth and sow destruction around
them," as a senior officer of the Israeli northern command described the operation.
Jibshit may have been a particular target because it was the home of Sheikh
Abdul Karim Obeid, kidnapped and brought to Israel several years earlier. Obeid's
home "received a direct hit from a missile," British journalist Robert Fisk
reported, "although the Israelis were presumably gunning for his wife and three
children." Those who had not escaped hid in terror, wrote Mark Nicholson in
the Financial Times, "because any visible movement inside or outside
their houses is likely to attract the attention of Israeli artillery spotters,
who … were pounding their shells repeatedly and devastatingly into selected
targets." Artillery shells were hitting some villages at a rate of more than
10 rounds a minute at times.
All of this received the firm support of President Bill Clinton, who understood
the need to instruct the Araboushim sternly on the "rules of the game."
And Rabin emerged as another grand hero and man of peace, so different from
the two-legged beasts, grasshoppers, and drugged roaches.
This is only a small sample of facts that the world might find of interest
in connection with the alleged responsibility of Moughniyeh for the retaliatory
terrorist act in Buenos Aires.
Other charges are that Moughniyeh helped prepare Hezbollah defenses against
the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, evidently an intolerable terrorist crime
by the standards of "the world," which understands that the United States and
its clients must face no impediments in their just terror and aggression.
The more vulgar apologists for U.S. and Israeli crimes solemnly explain that,
while Arabs purposely kill people, the U.S. and Israel, being democratic societies,
do not intend to do so. Their killings are just accidental ones, hence not at
the level of moral depravity of their adversaries. That was, for example, the
stand of Israel's High Court when it recently authorized severe collective punishment
of the people of Gaza by depriving them of electricity (hence water, sewage
disposal, and other such basics of civilized life).
The same line of defense is common with regard to some of Washington's past
peccadilloes, like the destruction in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant
in Sudan. The attack apparently led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people,
but without intent to kill them, hence not a crime on the order of intentional
killing – so we are instructed by moralists who consistently suppress the response
that had already been given to these vulgar efforts at self-justification.
To repeat once again, we can distinguish three categories of crimes: murder
with intent, accidental killing, and murder with foreknowledge but without specific
intent. Israeli and U.S. atrocities typically fall into the third category.
Thus, when Israel destroys Gaza's power supply or sets up barriers to travel
in the West Bank, it does not specifically intend to murder the particular people
who will die from polluted water or in ambulances that cannot reach hospitals.
And when Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of the al-Shifa plant, it was obvious
that it would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Human Rights Watch immediately
informed him of this, providing details; nevertheless, he and his advisers did
not intend to kill specific people among those who would inevitably die when
half the pharmaceutical supplies were destroyed in a poor African country that
could not replenish them.
Rather, they and their apologists regarded Africans much as we do the ants
we crush while walking down a street. We are aware that it is likely to happen
(if we bother to think about it), but we do not intend to kill them because
they are not worthy of such consideration. Needless to say, comparable attacks
by Araboushim in areas inhabited by human beings would be regarded rather
If, for a moment, we can adopt the perspective of the world, we might ask which
criminals are "wanted the world over."
Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works. His
latest books are Failed
States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy and What
We Say Goes, a conversation book with David Barsamian, both in the American
Empire Project series at Metropolitan Books. The
Essential Chomsky (edited by Anthony Arnove), a collection of his writings
on politics and on language from the 1950s to the present, has just been published
by the New Press.
Copyright 2008 Noam Chomsky